‘Not everybody can dance, so they go listen to comedy:’ Gay Pride Comedy Night at Berkeley’s Ashkenaz welcomes, entertains

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A handful of young bisexuals, two dozen aging lesbians and one lone straight man walk into a bar. What sounds like the punchline to a joke was in fact the composition of the crowd at Gay Pride Comedy Night at Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center last Friday — an evening in which, over the course of two hours, shows of solidarity featured just as often in the comedians’ repertoire as vagina jokes. With humor that was occasionally uncomfortable, but mostly good-natured and lighthearted, the comedians, brought together by producer Lisa Geduldig, held space for the audience and for one another, fostering an atmosphere of warm support that accommodated diverse sexualities as well as multiple styles of comedy.

The night began on a shaky start with Justin Lucas, a young and uneasy comedian who — among other things — told the crowd in vivid detail about the time his grandfather solicitously rearranged his dildo collection for him. Though his uncanny ability to mimic voices held the room for some time, he lost the crowd’s support after too many tense cracks about race. Following one particularly distasteful joke about deportation, the one-room Ashkenaz was left tight and airless, stuffed with a pervasive discomfort that was barely assuaged by Lucas’s outraged and insistent cry, “It’s a joke!”

The crowd — small and sweet, likely no bigger than 50 strong — warmed up significantly when 40-year comedic veteran Karen Ripley took the stage. Judging by the riotous applause and generous laughter with which she was greeted, Ripley had lured quite a few loyal fans to the show. Such devotion was well-deserved; from the first words out of her mouth — “I know what you’re thinking: she has a lot of sex” — to the last, she was uproariously funny. Frank but never jaded, she entertained with excellent deadpan, wonderfully unexpected one-liners and an especially funny story about a dildo that had been mistaken for poop.

The openness of Ripley’s comedy reflects her early experiences in the field like a carnival mirror; that is, in the inverse. Turned away from straight comedy clubs because the owners didn’t want queer crowds, she and others of her generation essentially created gay comedy. As she reflected in an interview with The Daily Californian, “We created our own space. … We didn’t really have a word ‘gay comedian.’ ”

Indeed, Ashkenaz’s Gay Pride night was a space of the LGBT community’s own. Welcoming, battle-tested and wizened, the comedians on stage revisited the days in which LGBT-supportive circles were few and far between. Sampson McCormick, for instance — third in the lineup and easily the funniest comedian of the night —, described his childhood in evangelical church, where the pastor believed he could identify the gay people in the congregation by the potent scent of barbecue sauce he thought they released.

Meanwhile, final act Mimi Gonzalez recalled the days when Detroit’s Motor City Pride was practically “target practice.” Her humor, which tended toward the harsh at times, was a reminder of the battles LGBT people of older generations fought even to be able to advertise a meetup like the one at Ashkenaz. At the same time, the generational divide between comedians like Gonzalez and McCormick became evident when the conversation shifted toward more nuanced aspects of identity, particularly in the areas of gender and the intersections of race and sexuality.

Where Gonzalez joked at length about how periods make women crazy and demanded to know why Q and C (questioning and curious) were added to the LGBT acronym in the first place, McCormick preached an even more radical inclusivity — one that includes not only the questioning and curious, but the Ku Klux Klan members that appeared at one of his shows, too.

“It seems like there are fewer and fewer spaces where we can just come and be and see people we usually wouldn’t see on the street or sit next to in a cafe or restaurant,” said McCormick in an interview with the Daily Cal. “I talk to rednecks, and yeah, they say a lot of fucked-up things, but when we just talk, we start to connect. … I really do believe people respond to love.”

Differences aside, this message of love saturated the night, thanks just as much to the comedians’ attitude as to the comedy itself. “The majority of comics, I think, are humanitarians — out there wanting to have fun and cheer people up,” noted Karen Ripley in her interview. “When you go on stage and you start saying things and people resonate, you can feel the energy in the room get higher and higher. People walk out of there like they’ve maybe been to a church.”

Sampson McCormick, who has performed stand-up at STI testing clinics and met bigoted hecklers head-on, couldn’t agree more. “Lean on light wherever you find light,” he said in his interview. “It’s the only way we’re gonna survive. Just be good to each other and laugh.”

Contact Sarah Elisabeth Coduto at [email protected].